Reports in today's Washington Post of a new Macintosh computer virus do more than confront users of that operating system with the same vulnerability that the unwashed masses endure daily. These reports point out how quickly and unpredictably threats to the Internet experience can emerge and spread, and how little sense it makes to tie any of our hands in the collective effort to combat those threats.
The Mac virus supposedly spreads like most viruses - through deceit. It entices users by posing as a file containing a picture of a new Apple product. Having infected a computer, the virus then transmits itself to other users through an instant messaging program.
With any luck, this virus will do little to undermine the security advantages that Apple has garnered over Windows-based operating systems, apparently by tightly engineering its hardware and software. But the lost sense that Macs would escape threats of this scale reminds us of the many problems that can afflict Internet use and thereby undermine consumer's demand for broadband Internet access.
As I stated in a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee last week, the Internet has some technical shortcomings. For example, the Internet suffers from a variety of security and safety vulnerabilities -- worms and viruses, authentication problems, inappropriate content and the like. The Internet also tends to transmit data in short bursts -- an approach that works well for things like e-mail, but poorly for applications like streaming audio or video that rely on a steady flow of information over the network. To address problems this pressing, consumers need help from all aspects of the Internet -- including DSL and other broadband network owners.
This is part of the risk that policymakers must consider in deciding whether to mandate "network neutrality" rather than allowing broadband networks owners some flexibility to help resolve the Internet's technical shortcomings. On February 6, the Wall Street Journal reported that AOL and Yahoo will combat junk e-mail and identity theft using an e-mail service that gives preferred treatment to certain e-mails for an additional charge. Suppose instead that a company like AOL seeks to buy services from Verizon or Comcast to address some of these technical shortcomings. A network neutrality mandate could prohibit Verizon or Comcast from doing that deal, based on the notion that the deal would "discriminate" in favor of AOL. If that were to happen, a network neutrality mandate would harm consumers by denying them the opportunity to get more out of the Internet with less frustration.
Thus, if policymakers are not careful, a network neutrality mandate could force broadband networks to disarm unilaterally, when the battle against security and other technical limitations has hardly begun. This would compound the potential harm to consumers of denying them the benefit of additional investment in competing broadband networks that mandates can discourage.
The genius of the Internet is, and will continue to be, its openness. This fact is not lost on DSL, cable modem and (hopefully) future competing broadband networks as they try to recoup their risky capital outlays. But with that openness comes a number of problems, and only time will tell how they are best addressed and by whom. It is one thing to clarify, as I have contended, that government should retain power to protect consumer welfare when openness is truly threatened (e.g., if broadband providers were to obtain and then abuse market power). It is another thing to impose mandates like network neutrality when consumers already enjoy the freedom they expect from the Internet, and when they can't afford to lose the help of network owners or anyone else in the struggle to keep Internet use safe, secure and reliable.